In early 2018, I watched Thondimuthalum Driksashiyum (The Stolen Property and the Witness), the Malayalam film with the tongue-twister title that was on many critics’ year-end lists and won the Indian National Award for Best Malayalam Film of 2017. At that time, I wasn’t aware that I was watching the latest entry in what was being called the “New Wave of Malayalam cinema”. I read about this trend only a few months afterwards and since then, I’ve been on the lookout for a definitive list of such non-formulaic, non-glamorous, character-driven films. After off-and-on research over the past few months, I finally embarked on a ‘crash course’ in Malayalam New Wave and have now watched about 20 of these films. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of discovering the movies, watching them and then figuring out the patterns and connections between the movies and the filmmakers! Pretty much all the films I watched were well-paced and entertaining, with solid scripts, depth and consistency of characterization, and in a couple of cases, dazzling cinematic technique (and most importantly for me, no gratuitous song and dance sequences)!
2011 is the year that’s generally considered to be the jump-off point for the “New Wave”, a term which became part of the collective consciousness of film writers only by around 2015, when people realized that the early films were not a flash in the pan. What first appeared to be sporadic efforts by unknown young filmmakers exploring new themes and film-making techniques, has coalesced into a body of work that has been embraced by critics, award juries and most importantly, by the movie-going public.
The Malayalam film landscape was dominated by Mohanlal and Mammootty in the 1980s, both of whom acted in a number of outstanding films that were entertaining, realistic and in some cases, thought-provoking. From the mid-90s through to the 2000s, the two acting giants aged gracefully, appearing in high profile vehicles written for them and directed by equally high profile directors like Fazil and Sibi Malayil. Meanwhile, a new wave of young actors emerged – many from a background of stand-up comedy (referred to colloquially as ‘mimicry’ in Kerala) who mainly featured in low-budget, lightweight comedies. These films were no doubt entertaining, but film fans started to worry that the era of quality cinema characterized by the two M’s was coming to an end.
That year 2011, saw the coincidental release of a set of films by directors whose culture was rooted in the unique urban/millennial milieu of Kerala, but whose cinematic expression was influenced by the gritty realism and innovative techniques of directors from around the world – contemporary filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino, Jose Padilha and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and the masters like Kurosawa and Scorsese.
Many of these movies were either the debut or sophomore efforts – Rajesh Pillai’s road thriller Traffic, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s crime thriller City of God, Aashiq Abu’s rom-com Salt N’ Pepper, Salim Ahmed’s poignant drama Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam) and Sameer Thahir’s thriller Chaappa Kurish (Head or Tails).
Traffic weaves together multiple strands, adopting the hyperlink approach of Tarentino’s and Iñárritu’s early films, while instilling the life or death urgency of Jan de Bont’s Speed. The unlikely and unglamorous protagonist of the film is veteran character actor Sreenivasan, playing a disgraced cop who grabs a chance at redemption by volunteering to drive a car carrying a heart for a transplant patient. The film was a sleeper hit and was remade in multiple languages with the Hindi version being directed by Pillai himself. Tragically, Pillai died of health complications soon after, at the age of 41.
City of God also used the hyperlink or non-linear narrative format to tell the intersecting stories of migrant Tamil workers, a Dubai-based businesswoman and the construction mafia in Kochi. Its ensemble cast featured young actors like Prithviraj Sukumaran, his brother Indrajith and actresses Rima Kallingal and Shweta Menon (who was 4th behind Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and Francesca Hart in Femina Miss India 1994). While it didn’t make waves at the box office, it was a sign of things to come from director Lijo Jose Pellissery.
Salt N’ Pepper sees director Aashiq Abu applying the New Wave approach to the most popular genre of Malayalam cinema, the rom-com. Instead of the usual “boy-meets-girl in college” story, this film featured two older, and rather eccentric characters (played by veteran character actor-director Lal and Shweta Menon) who come together through a common love for food and cooking. The opening credits could easily rank alongside that of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman for its celebration of food. The film was an unexpected hit.
Adaminte Makan Abu is the outlier in this pack; neither urban-centric nor a thriller, it’s a poignant drama about the ‘human condition’, in this case the efforts of a poor, ageing attar (perfume) seller Abu and his wife to cobble together the funds to make their first ever Hajj trip. The couple are played by comedian Salim Kumar (cast against type) and veteran Hindi film star Zarina Wahab respectively. It won the National Award for Best Feature Film of 2011. Director Salim Ahmed has directed three more films since then, including Pathemari (2015) starring Mammootty, which chronicles the lives of Malayalees living in the Gulf. It won the National Award for Best Malayalam Film of 2015.
Chaappa Kurish is a thriller in which Arjun, a successful young building contractor loses his cellphone on which he had a video of him making love to his office colleague; the phone is accidentally picked up by a poor slum dweller Ansari, who works in a supermarket. The film deals with Arjun’s efforts to retrieve the phone from Ansari and highlights the differences in class and value systems between the two men. Arjun is played by Fahadh Faasil, who has become perhaps the most visible face of Malayalam New Wave. The other character, Ansari is played by Vineeth Sreenivasan, son of veteran character actor (and screenwriter) Sreenivasan, and he has now emerged as a reputed screenwriter and director in his own right, while continuing his career as an actor. This was cinematographer Sameer Thahir’s debut film as director and while the movie was entertaining, it was also criticized for being a rip-off of Korean film Handphone.
I’ll continue this journey through time into 2012 in my next post, where we see the emergence of more New Wave filmmakers.